One of the most intriguing things about the new season is how it is difficult to know what Unai Emery is going to do with his team selection and his tactics. Under Arsene Wenger, everything became very predictable. The 70th minute substitution, which players would get selected and the style of play became quite easy to guess by the end of this tenure at the club.
That isn’t to say that what Wenger was doing was wrong, but because of how long we’d all watched the team under his management, what he was going to do was clear and familiar.
This isn’t the case in the early part of this season as we all try and second guess what Unai Emery is thinking. From his team selections and substitutions in the first few games, it seems like reputations are being ignored and he’s picking players based on what he wants in certain games. That was evident at Chelsea on Saturday with one of the most surprising names on the team sheet being Alex Iwobi.
After bursting into the first team in 2016, Iwobi didn’t continue his rapid development and drew criticism last season. While Arsene Wenger was great for his career in that he was promoted to the first team at a young age, Iwobi last season looked like a player that would benefit from the voice of a different coach. As a result, he is the player in the squad I’m most interested to see how his game develops under Unai Emery.
In a squad that is lacking in wide players, there is an opportunity for Iwobi to really establish himself in the team and gain confidence from being an important member of the squad. When he is at his best, everything looks natural and like he isn’t having to overthink his game. Much like Theo Walcott, Iwobi’s decision making isn’t great when he has plenty of time to think about what to do. More detailed tactical coaching from Unai Emery could be just what he needs to make that decision making second nature.
I was delighted to see him score at Stamford Bridge because that will give him confidence and was an important contribution from him in a big game. Iwobi’s end product has been a major area of his game with room for improvement as he can panic in front of goal, but he timed his movement into the box perfectly against Chelsea and finished clinically.
Physically he can also become an imposing figure in the team. He’s quick, strong and has the stamina to do his defensive work when playing on the flank. While Chelsea were regularly attacking Arsenal’s right side on Saturday with Henrikh Mkhitaryan not offering much protection to Hector Bellerin, the Blues got much less joy on the other side as Iwobi worked back to help Nacho Monreal. With Danny Welbeck possessing the athleticism to work back but lacking the same technical quality and Mkhitaryan and Mesut Ozil not being genuine wide players, Iwobi offers balance to the team. He is someone who suits the pressing tactics but picking him doesn’t come at the expense of footballing ability when the team regains possession.
The other main I hope Alex Iwobi can progress this season is that he is also an Arsenal man. With Jack Wilshere gone and Carl Jenkinson realistically only going to get a game if there is an injury crisis after his latest setback, Iwobi can take on the mantle of being a fan in the first team and being an example of having a dream as a kid, coming through the academy and playing for your boyhood team.
For someone that has the nickname BIG 17 and has a strong social media game, he doesn’t always play on the pitch with the same amount of expression, especially when he has the talent to do so. The changes at the club over the summer have given Iwobi an opportunity to change that. He’s recently signed a new long-term contract and while that will partly be to protect any future value in the transfer market, it was a show of confidence in his ability and potential.
Not knowing what Unai Emery is going to do, Iwobi could easily end up out of the team against West Ham on Saturday if the head coach wants to get Aubameyang and Lacazette into the same team. But Iwobi was trusted by Emery in a big away game and he repaid that faith with a strong performance. If he continues to take his opportunities in the team, Iwobi can progress towards the player we hoped he’d be when he first broke through into the first team.